Thursday, February 5, 2009

An Eco-disaster(erd) Dystopia

The Sheep Head for a Dystopia

The hungry sheep look up and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,

Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spred:
Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw

Daily devours apace, and nothing sed,
But that two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.

Lycidas, William Blake


If The Sheep Look Up were set in the 21st century, one wouldn't be too far wrong in perceiving inferences of George Bush's legacy as foreign policy antagonist and
defier of warnings about the changing nature of the environment. A president who flouts warnings about the environment and spews gems like, "You are either with us or against us," is no different from Prexy in Brunner's fictional US of A in his perceived war against terror. A nation founded on laws is flouting them in an increasingly repressive system of governance, corporate greed, and a technology that is not up to
the task.
And in this mix are the people; the trusting sheep that won't protest nor exercise their intellect. They are headed for a cliff!

The Sheep Look up. Ah, what a tale!

On the surface, Sheep appears to be a novel about ordinary people ranging from an insurance salesman, a nurse, a journalist, the son of a wealthy oil producer, a soldier, a doctor, a relief worker, and others. The theme seems ordinary too: an interplay of cause and effect, a net of interrelations that spans the whole world, and from which no one can escape. Similarly, the narrative is interspersed by ordinary occurrences such as advertisements, news flashes, public speeches, and daily weather reports that detail the extent of air pollution. Clearly, this fiction falls in the category of nature criticism that paints a dire picture of the environment. Catastrophe looms. It ranges from environmental decay with the resultant foul air and the inevitable water shortages. However, as if to emphasize the idea that the world is one, that what happens in one part of the world affects another, affliction is universal. No wonder the United Nations is added to the mix! While this calamity is not limited to the usual targets in the third world, the tale is set in the United States, specifically, Denver, so there is the usual demographic and class composition in the form of race, blue and white collar workers, entrepreneurs, hippies and the elite, etc. And as it is with science fiction, there is always a scientist, whose radical experimentation verge on the fringe of the outer limits.

It seems rather obvious to state that The Sheep Look up is rather bleak. But, it has to be said. Sheep is so bleak it borders on horror. Perhaps the reason we, collectively as a world, have not felt the kind of horror vividly envisaged in this tale, is that while some of the disasters dealt with equal our own, they have been far spread and confined to far away places, like Auschwitz, Darfur, Rwanda,
Chernobyl, Hiroshima, China (SARS); they have ranged from Mad Cow Disease, Tsunamis, and the list goes on. In recent times, 9/11 literally shocked the entire world, because, thanks to cable news, the whole world bore witness to that attack. That experience allows us to accept the magnitude of destruction portrayed in Sheep.

In the novel, the entire world has been struck with disasters ranging from incurable diarrhea, to starvation, to a season that is out of whack (snow in April). This time, not only has disaster hit closer to home (the US), but it has spared no corner of the world. John Brunner seems to hold the US responsible for the debacle as he presents to us the US on the brink of an apocalypse ushered in by an ecodisaster disaster. Science has brought us antibiotics, insecticides, pollution, all of which hasten climate change and global warming. But first, there is contaminated food delivered in an African country.

Austin Train holds great capital among those who believe in Brunner's passionate cause: the environment. His beef: abuse of the planet. As a result of Train's work, a community of trainites, who are really environmentalists inhabiting the woods, help champion his cause. Unfortunately, Train wants to inject the cause with a measure of intellect so as to be taken seriously, perhaps, by the other environmentalists represented by Bamberly. The trainites may be living off the land, but by engaging in subversive acts like setting off bombs and explosions, they are accelerating its demise. No wonder the elite conservatives despise them and Austin Train wishes to bring that to a halt. Meanwhile, the irony is that the elite environmentalists do not realize the relationship between their own excessive consumption and the degeneration of the environment.

For his part, John Brunner pushes his environmental message at the expense of his messengers. The characters in the novel are introduced to us through limited incidences and discussions involving what else, the environment. They don't develop beyond the mouthpieces that they are. At least I didn't get a sense of who they are in terms of personality; I don't empathize with their dilemma, except for Train, whose thought process we get to engage more with. Brunner does not give me room to. There are no heroes in this novel. There are lost souls who perish due to sill mistakes or preventable accidents.

This lack of rapport between the characters and the reader may well be because of the style that Brunner opts to narrate his tale. Using clips from the media, a little bit of prose,
a couple of vignettes, and not so dramatic shifts from one scene to the next (with no clear connection) --he takes a novel approach to storytelling. However, his seeming foreknowledge of events we now know are consistent with today's digital media is uncanny.

The Sheep Look Up is more about ideas than about characters. it is the series of ideas that carry the story forward. It expresses the complexity of reality rather successfully. The trainites want to be violent, a move contrary to Austin Train, the person they are rallying behind.

The Practice of Everyday Life
Michel de Certeau

Events in history may expose the reality
He was concerned with evaluating power and institutional boundaries.

Major themes/ideas/topics
  • the elements--the pollution of the water, wide scale pollution, the ocean, the Great Lakes dying

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